ARABELLA GOLF CLUB ****1/2
From Cape Town, east and south toward the whale-watching town of Hermanus, lies the Botrivier Lagoon, the largest in South Africa. In surroundings designated a "world biosphere," you'll find a beautiful modern course where eye-catching distractions can range from 130 different species of birds, the Kogelberg Mountains, forest and natural fynbos (Afrikaans for "fine bush," or evergreen shrubland found only in South Africa). This natural canvas provides gorgeous backdrops and a "special place" atmosphere. Arabella's par-five eighth, playing downhill toward a tight lagoon-side green, the high-risk ninth and especially the three closing holes along the water's edge, are the course's standout challenges.
Arabella Country Estate, R44, Kleinmond, Overberg, Western Cape; 011-27/282-849-383, arabellagolf.co.za. Yardage: 6,651. Par: 72. Architect: Peter Matkovich, 2000. Greens Fees: $81 (visitor), $61 (hotel guest).
DURBAN COUNTRY CLUB ****1/2
Located on the edge of this vibrant coastal city, Durban Country Club—one of South Africa's most venerable institutions—decided three years ago it wanted to retake its place among the best in world golf. A spa and restaurant dominate plans for the new clubhouse complex, while on the Country Club course, change has meant new tees, the removal of invasive trees and greater attention to conditioning. The flatter parkland holes in the middle of the routing were the main beneficiaries of the remodeling, but it's the dunesy holes along the Indian Ocean that make Durban a must-see. Elevated tees point to tight routes through bush- and tree-lined fairways, as on the third hole, a par five that plays into a narrow valley from the highest point on the course. It is one of the world's great three-shot holes. The eighteenth is also notable: At just 276 yards, it's a wonderfully tempting finisher, but when the wind blows, nothing is easy at Durban.
Walter Gilbert Road, Durban, KwaZuluNatal; 011-27/313-131-779, dcclubco.za. Yardage: 6,733. Par: 72. Architects: George Waterman and Laurie Waters, 1922. Greens Fees: $50–$71.
PEARL VALLEY SIGNATURE GOLF ESTATE & SPA ****
The signature here is Jack Nicklaus's, on his second layout in South Africa (the first was Pecanwood in Gauteng). Nine man-made lakes dominate play; rye and fescue fairways, manicured bent-grass greens and vast bunkering combine to add up to a genuinely beautiful piece of Nicklausville in the Franschhoek winelands. The waterside green on the par-three thirteenth demands a deep breath—and guts—from the back tee. If there's a criticism, it's that Pearl Valley feels a little bit too corporate, too "safe haven." But then, in South Africa, that's not always such a bad thing.
Pearl Valley Estate, R301, Franschhoek, Western Cape; 011-27/218-678-000, pearlvalley.co.za. Yardage: 7,168. Par: 72. Architect: Jack Nicklaus, 2003. Greens Fee: $84.
PEZULA GOLF CLUB ****
On the clifftop plateau of the Knysna Heads, with a lagoon on one side, the Indian Ocean on the other and the Outeniqua Mountains as the backdrop, Pezula packs as much scenery as anyplace. Formerly known as Sparrebosch, Pezula is a loud, theatrical design. What it lacks in subtlety it makes up for with raw challenge and excitement, as at the par-four fourteenth, where the ocean has the leading role. A three-wood gains you a large landing area; waves crash on the cliffs below. It's hard to ignore the danger of sand around the small green—it's enough to shoot a scene from Lawrence of Arabia—but if you can manage to keep the wind from whipping your punched wedge into another time zone, you'll make par.
Lagoon View Drive, Knysna, Garden Route, Western Cape; 011-27/443-025-300, pezula.com. Yardage: 6,517. Par: 72. Architects: Ronald Fream and David Dale, 2000. Greens Fee: $100.